“Give me the reasons to go on. Soften the sorrow that shatters and bends, and mend broken dreams.”
Singer/songwriter Mark Heard wrote those words in “House of Broken Dreams” on his Dry Bones Dance LP in 1990. There was a prophesy buried within the lines, whether he knew it or not. Heard passed away two years later, in August of 1992, but his words have echoed on in the hearts of all who knew them. And now, with Treasure of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard, many more hearts can join the chorus while marking the 25th anniversary of his passing.
For Jeff Grantham, the project's mastermind, another lyric sums it all up: "Time marches away like a lost platoon" (from “Strong Hand of Love”). Because two prior Heard tributes that were done in the mid-90s are both now out of print, Grantham felt like the time was right to revisit the catalog. “It was concerning to think that memory of him as an artist might fade away completely with the passing of our generation,” he explains. “Unlike Nick Drake or Gram Parsons, for example, you don't hear Mark's original work played on the radio or popping up in a TV commercial or a movie soundtrack.”
As a back-stop to Heard's possible obscurity, Grantham recruited producer Phil Madeira and an army of Americana artists to render the songs anew. Before and during the project, Rodney Crowell, Drew Holcomb, Sierra Hull, Buddy Miller, Sarah Potenza, Amy Helm, and others each came to know Mark and his music on their own terms.
For Over the Rhine's Linford Detweiler, a Heard-penned essay was the original entry point. “There was something about Mark that felt like a kindred spirit, a brother in arms -- although we never actually met,” he says. “He seemed to be struggling with how his music fit into the world. But mostly what came through was that Mark was serious about the craft and calling of songwriting, and wanted to keep getting better. He wanted to answer the call to write in some truly authentic way.”
Introduced to Heard's music by an early guitar teacher, Holcomb felt a similar simpatico: “I loved his alternative approach at making music about faith and life that was confessional instead of prescriptive.” Other artists on the album were newcomers to the Heard catalog, each thoughtfully recruited by either Grantham or Madeira. Then, together, they set about pairing each singer with the just-right song culled from Heard's three final releases: Dry Bones Dance, Second Hand, and Satellite Sky.
Matt Haeck, who opens the album with his roots rock take on “The Dry Bones Dance,” went through quite a process to find his way into that particular tune. “First, I have to listen to the song about 400 times,” he says. “and I have to listen in different ways. I need to connect to the musical feel on the one hand and the lyrics on the other. If it's an honest song, I'll find something within the song to connect deeply to, even if it takes a lot of repetition. Lastly, I have to find performance elements I can execute that are not in the original. I have to personalize it.”
Likewise, Karin Bergquist deployed her own personalization process for Over the Rhine's sparsely sober spin of “Look Over Your Shoulder.” “My orientation is to not re-record what’s in front of me. The world already has that version of the song. I very much want people to hear the song again, as if for the first time. I want to be surprised by what’s revealed, and advocate on behalf of the listener.”
Holcomb had an easier go of it when he tackled “Tip of My Tongue” with all its juke joint swagger. As he tells it, “We just got in there with the band, and Phil and I kicked around some ideas and found a way to make it match my voice and vibe. It came very naturally, and we had it in two takes.”
When a songwriter's work transcends time, space, and category as Heard's does, artists from any era, genre, or gender can connect, as evidenced time and again on Treasure of the Broken Land. That's because, according to Madeira, “The best songwriting comes out of wrestling and conversing with yourself. It’s a spiritual endeavor.” It certainly was for Heard. Rooted in his religious upbringing in Macon, Georgia, he wrestled “with belief, doubt, pain, and ultimate resurrection,” turning vision into verse. “I remember Mark as someone trying to live in the reality of his faith, but trying -- like so many of us -- to jettison the parts that seemed antithetical to love,” Madeira says. “You can hear this longing in many of his songs.”
While bringing awareness to Heard's stunning body of work is certainly one of the main goals of the project, Grantham also hopes Treasure of the Broken Land will make Mark's widow, Janet, and his daughter Rebecca proud. Further still, “I have a loftier goal in mind,” he confesses. “In these challenging times, 'music heals' has become a mantra for many artists. I sincerely hope this collection of songs is part of the healing process and that it has a positive impact on those who hear it.”
When a great artist dies at a fairly young age, the hole they leave is that much bigger than it might have been because we are all left to wonder what else they might have accomplished. But their impact is, indeed, felt... even in their absence.
“I saw part of Mark Heard’s last show on earth,” Detweiler says. “We were at a festival together, and I had snuck away after one of our sets to catch a bit of what Mark was doing. I couldn’t even stay to the end, but there he was, alone on a little stage in a tent with an acoustic guitar. G.K. Chesterton said something to the effect that we need priests and pastors to remind us that one day we are going to die. But we need painters and poets and writers to remind us we’re not dead yet. Mark was trying to remind us that we weren’t dead yet. But then, later, I saw the lights of the ambulance, and soon he was gone.”
But his songs live on to remind us.